On Pros and Studios

by Thomas Brady in

Steve Jobs, at D8, in 2013:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that's what you needed on a farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, and America started to move into those urban and then suburban centers, cars got more popular, and innovations like automatic transmission and power steering—things that you didn't care about in a truck, as much—started to become paramount in cars. And now... maybe 1 out of every 25 vehicles, 30 vehicles, is a truck; where it used to be 100 percent. PCs are going to be like trucks. They're still going to be around. They're still going to have a lot of value, but they're going to be used by 1 out of X people.

There's a part of this analogy that is as elusive as it is obvious: trucks serve a different purpose than cars. You can look at this analogy, and think of trucks as crude, early prototypes of cars—brutally practical manifestations of the idea of a steel and rubber beast of burden, propelled by exploding fossil fuels. The car, then, in this line of thinking, is the subtler, more refined embodiment of the automobile. The Truck 2.0.

But that's so far from the truth.

I think the main point in Jobs' poignant analogy is that trucks are "still going to be around." That they're "still going to have a lot of value." There are things you can do with a truck that you at least wouldn't want to, and often wouldn't be able to do with a car. They are hired for different jobs.

PC sales have steadily declined since we entered the "post-PC era," as Jobs declared in the video above, precisely because so many of the jobs that PCs used to get hired to do can be done on mobile devices, especially smartphones, today.

So, what's a PC manufacturer to do?

I live in, and grew up in, Texas. Something that has been simply part of the background of my life here, that I've learned is more than a little unusual in many other geographies, is trucks-as-daily-driven-vehicles. In Texas, driving down most streets and highways, you will pass a lot of trucks. Many of them will be dented and dirty, with work equipment, building materials, or smaller off-road vehicles filling their beds. Most of them, however, will be squeaky-clean, and shiny as the day they were stamped out of aluminum sheets.

I'm no expert, but I believe this is because in the early 90s, or perhaps even in the 80s, truck manufacturers learned that they could sell trucks as aspirational status symbols. Where some people aspire to be rich, and can be sold a Cadillac as a symbol of their dreams—even when they can't actually afford a Cadillac, thanks to the innovation of the automobile loan, others aspire to be seen as "tough," "hard-working," or, plainly, "cowboys" and "cowgirls." Once they figured out this market existed, the manufacturers started playing up the aspirational aspects of the vehicles, with ever-larger cabins, wheels, and chrome grills, while simultaneously adding more creature-comforts to the utilitarian vehicles, in everything from stair-steps to aid in getting into the vehicles to greater choice in paint styles and colors to high-end infotainment systems and multi-zone climate controls.

I see, daily, people driving around in gigantic trucks with wheels as tall as me, beds longer than my car, a mirror finish that says "I was waxed just yesterday," and a cover over the bed of the truck that says, "this space not intended for actual use." These trucks are hired to project an image, not to haul a load.

So, if you were a go-getter product manager at a PC manufacturer, and you were trying to figure out how to apply the lessons of the aspirational pickup truck to the PC industry, what might you do with/to the PC to elevate its aspirational appeal?

The World Economic Forum believes we're about to experience a 4th industrial revolution ("Fourth?" I hear you saying. Yeah, I didn't know we'd had more than one either. By their count we had steam automation in 1748, mass production in 1870, and electronics and automation in 1969), one in which artificially intelligent agents consume a significant portion of the job market, potentially displacing human counterparts, or, optimistically, creating new opportunities for those human counterparts. The previous industrial revolution(s) saw several forms of what could be called "mindless labor" evaporate, leaving behind "craft" work and "thought" work. Machines can bend steel more efficiently than humans, but they can't, yet, compete with many forms handmade goods, nor can they design the form into which they're bending the steel. The modern thought-worker was born of the industrial revolution(s). Could this fourth industrial revolution bring a new kind of work and worker with it? Will we soon see the dawn of the age of the "creative worker?"

Quick: what feature can you add to your computing device that really sells it as a "Pro" device?

Answer? Well, if you're Apple or Microsoft, it's apparently pen input.

Here's the lowly iPad:

The iPad Air, which does not have pen input.

The iPad Air, which does not have pen input.

And here's the mighty iPad Pro:

iPad Pro, which works with the Apple Pencil

iPad Pro, which works with the Apple Pencil

Here's Microsoft's Surface Pro:

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen

And, of course there's the plain, old MacBook:

MacBook, which lacks pen input

MacBook, which lacks pen input

And the MacBook Pro:

MacBook Pro with pen input…err...

MacBook Pro with pen input…err...

[Record scratch]

Hold on...

Let's look back over at the Microsoft side of the fence, at their newest Surface devices. There's the Surface Hub:

Microsoft Surface Hub, with TWO pens

Microsoft Surface Hub, with TWO pens

The Surface Hub has two pens, so it's extra professional.

And, finally, we have the newest member of the family, the Surface Studio:

Microsoft Surface Studio, with Surface Pen AND Dial

Microsoft Surface Studio, with Surface Pen AND Dial

These last two eschew the "Pro" moniker for even more productivity-charged names like "Hub," which drips with collaborative clout, and "Studio," which evokes high ceilings, large, wooden desks with nearly nothing on them, and people in stylish clothes holding their chins and nodding.

I think all of these devices are going after the same market. They're all selling the image of the creative professional—the kind of outside-the-box thinker that will still have a job when yours has been stolen by a Slackbot.

So, why did Apple zig with the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro, when the rest of the industry (not to mention their own iPad line) zagged with pen input?

Let's evaluate these solutions on their merits as aspirational signals. When you see someone using an iPad with an Apple Pencil, you definitely get the impression that they are a "creative." They have the appearance of being an illustrator or architect right off the bat. Now, take away the Pencil, since they won't really be using it full-time. What do you have? You still have someone who looks like a "creative." They're using a tablet, when the vast majority uses a PC. They appear cutting-edge. They look like a digital native. It's a "second device," for most people anyway, an indication that after you bought your PC you had enough money leftover to also buy a tablet. The Pencil is a powerfully additive sigil, but the device starts out with a healthy dose of aspirational overtones.

The same is true, largely, of the Surface Pro.

And then there's the Studio. Picture its daily use, for someone who isn't an illustrator or architect. You know, like 98% of the people who will buy one. It will sit on their desk, in the upright position, with the pen either nowhere in sight or inconspicuously magnetized to the side of the screen. For all intents and purposes, it will look like a regular computer monitor. Like any other computer monitor. The aspirational quality has been drained. It's just a PC. If you pull out the pen and begin drawing, you skyrocket back to "rockstar comic book artist" status, unless it's painfully obvious that you're not an illustrator by the awkward way you tap around at the screen in its upright position.

When someone is actively using the Touch Bar on a new MacBook Pro, it looks more like they're playing a musical instrument than using a computer. And when they're not using the Touch Bar, it glows with an unmistakable call to action. Walk past one at a coffee shop and see how quickly your brain identifies it in your periphery. It may not be the best way to sell this image, but it's the best Apple came up with this go-round, and I'm sure they believe this is better than having simply added pen input.

Meanwhile, the internet piles up with critiques of Apple's PC lineup, especially the Mac Pro. Mark Gurman writes, in an article entitled "How Apple Alienated Mac Loyalists ,"

While the Mac generates about 10 percent of Apple sales, the company can't afford to alienate professional designers and other business customers. After all, they helped fuel Apple's revival in the late 1990s. In a stinging critique, Peter Kirn, founder of a website for music and video creators, wrote: "This is a company with no real vision for what its most creative users actually do with their most advanced machines."

Apple has always sold aspirational computing devices. They've always been the brand of the "creative." In part this was because of the software that was offered on Macs. In part it was because Macs, with their greater user experience, weren't as nerdy as their Windows and Unix counterparts. In perhaps greater part, though, was the way Apple marketed their computers. They were always much better-looking. They were always more expensive. They were always advertised as the computer for the dreamer, the rugged individual, the "crazy ones." As the whole industry closes their focus on that market, Apple will get squeezed, forced to specialize within a niche of their own creation. This is no easy task. The Mac Pro was their first attempt—a desktop PC that was obviously designed for specific, creative use-cases, where its beefy and plentiful GPUs were as important as if not more important than it's CPUs. And whether you were using it to edit 4k video or edit a spreadsheet, you clearly looked creative while you were doing it, with the shiny, black sculpture on your desk. That didn't turn out to be enough to justify the hefty price tag.

The MacBook Pro is their second major attempt. The Touch Bar may or may not succeed where the "trash can" failed, but even if it does, there isn't a clear migration path for the Touch Bar to make its way to a desktop.

Perhaps the Mac Pro update is so late in coming because they're still trying to figure out how to build a better truck.